Returning to the San Antonio Spurs, this time as an assistant coach, franchise power forward Tim Duncan will take some of the team’s blossoming talent under his wing this season.
Three years removed from his final NBA game; San Antonio Spurs franchise star Tim Duncan never truly left. The 15-time All-Star spent 19 seasons playing in the Alamo City and became the heart of a loving community in the process, so it’s only natural for him to make his return to the NBA in his adopted home.
It was announced on Monday afternoon that Duncan would take his seat next to Spurs patriarch Gregg Popovich on the sidelines starting in the 2019-20 season as an assistant coach. Duncan proved himself as one of, if not the single most methodical athletes to ever grace the sport, donning the title of “The Big Fundamental” on his way to five titles and two MVP trophies during his playing days.
The secret regarding Duncan’s return is that he never really left. Even at 43-years-old, Duncan religiously practiced at Spurs facilities with current players and coaches in the years following his retirement. An 82-game season and 251-career playoff games took a toll on Duncan’s body, forcing him to call it quits and focus on his family after the Spurs’ Western Conference Semifinals loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016.
Even as his time came, Timmy’s love for the game never wavered and finally, he makes his momentous return to the Spurs. His guidance and mentorship will be pivotal in the continued growth of the young Spurs coming up within the system today.
Duncan, in some way or another, will serve as a mentor to each of the players on the roster this season. Still, some of the younger individuals donning black and silver will be major beneficiaries of the prodigal son’s return.
Next: Lonnie Walker IV
1. Lonnie Walker IV
Hopes for Lonnie Walker IV in San Antonio are almost as high as his vertical and Tim Duncan’s guidance will only enhance his rapid development. Selected with the 18th pick in the 2018 draft, Walker was named to the Summer League Second-Team after partaking in just two games in Las Vegas. That’s all it took for the 20-year-old, who averaged 30 points, four boards and 1.5 steals in roughly 27 minutes per contest.
Walker has star potential and few players can relate to his innate humility the way Duncan can. These are two extremely high-character individuals with a distinguishable fire burning within, leading to prosperous results both on and off the hardwood.
Having someone of Duncan’s caliber at his side throughout his sophomore campaign will be invaluable for the rising star looking to find his way in this league.
From a basketball standpoint, Walker can learn a lot from Duncan’s signature style of play. Footwork is essential for a young wing hoping to make his mark on the Spurs and few players have mastered that aspect of the game like Duncan did in his playing career. Aside from footwork, Duncan can teach defensive instincts and a team-first mentality to the skilled prospect from Reading, Pennsylvania.
Walker possesses a level of explosiveness that Timmy could never match in his athletic prime, but he’ll need to learn how to properly harness and utilize that without being reckless. For as outstanding as he was through the Salt Lake City and Las Vegas Summer Leagues, it was evident that Walker still needs to work on his decision-making.
There’s no doubt that Duncan will be in Lonnie’s ear, serving as the voice of reason as he works his way through the NBA landscape while carving out a role for himself in Coach Pop’s lineup.
Next: Jakob Poeltl
2. Jakob Poeltl
It can be argued that the biggest beneficiary of Duncan’s return to the Spurs is center Jakob Poeltl, who’s on the verge of his first ever contract-year. The seven-footer fills many of the roles Duncan once donned under Popovich’s system – he’s the primary rebounder, rim defender and roll man off of screens for this group.
With the model of consistency watching him from the pine, Poeltl will be sure to take strides as Timmy teaches him to expand his game and become a well-rounded player. Defensively, Poeltl was extremely impressive in the 2019 NBA Playoffs, matchup up well against one of the game’s craftiest bigs in Nuggets center Nikola Jokic.
Poeltl held his opponents to 45.5 percent shooting through seven playoff games and posted a 5.5 Box Plus/Minus for the series – the best amongst Spurs logging significant minutes. He made 64 percent of his attempts from the field and shined as the interior anchor for Pop’s group on both ends of the floor.
Previously seen as the token chip added in the trade that brought DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio, all signs indicate that Poeltl has a bright future ahead of him. He was selected with the ninth pick in 2016 and made an immediate impact in limited minutes for the Raptors during his tenure up North but has since become a more refined talent with improved feel for the game.
Duncan was versatile beyond belief in his playing days, rotating between the power forward and center positions with ease while remaining the team’s dominant rim defender. This defensive prowess cannot simply be transmitted across players, but it can be inferred that Timmy will do everything in his power to see Poeltl’s potential through.
Jakob has the capability to become the Spurs’ best center since David Robinson himself and Duncan’s mentorship will be crucial in reaching those heights.
Next: Chimezie Metu
3. Chimezie Metu
Last year’s second-round selection Chimezie Metu spent a decent amount of the 2018-19 season with the main group in San Antonio, but never carved out a consistent role for himself. This isn’t necessarily a knock against him, most young Spurs don’t play much in their rookie year, but Metu missed some serious opportunity to learn and grow through the Summer League due to injury.
Metu is a fundamentally-sound hybrid big man with excellent footwork and lot of natural ability – sound familiar?
Duncan will be an excellent role model for the former USC Trojan. For as interesting as he may be as a prospect, Metu is still extremely raw with plenty of untapped potential to key in on. Spending time working closely with The Big Fundamental should put Metu in position to find himself and nab some skills off of the NBA legend.
The 22-year-old’s preferred style of play in college was as a faceup four, utilizing his deceptive quickness and wide arsenal of triple-threat moves to catch his defender off guard and barrel to the rack. He’s also got a soft mid-range jumper that is oftentimes relied upon, similarly to Duncan.
In terms of playstyle, Metu is the player on this roster that most mirrors Duncan’s game, meaning he could end up learning boatloads from the franchise cornerstone and establishing himself as a rotation player in the process.
San Antonio doesn’t have a true backup center set in its rotation and Metu will be able to compete for that role. Should he take the time and properly expand his game to match professional competition, Metu could end up rising in the depth chart when it’s all said and done.
Next: Dejounte Murray
4. Dejounte Murray
From a pure basketball standpoint, there are better mentors to fit recovering point guard Dejounte Murray’s needs than Tim Duncan. Someone like veteran Patty Mills is better suited to tutor Murray in the art of the floor general and his predecessor, Tony Parker, was surely a better advisor for the position. Still, Murray will welcome back his former teammate Tim Duncan with open arms and pick his brain for nuggets of wisdom as often as possible in an attempt to establish himself as the leader of this next generation of Spurs.
From a vocal standpoint, few individuals have expressed The Spurs Way greater than Dejounte over the course of the last three seasons. Even after the untimely injury that kept him sidelined all of last year, Murray remained close in proximity to the rest of the team and consistently encouraged his teammates to push themselves further toward the ultimate goal of winning a championship.
Murray’s intentions are evident: he wants to bring a sixth banner to the Alamo City as a homegrown stud under the expert guidance of Popovich and Duncan. Having someone who filled that role for just under two decades will pay off in dividends for the 22-year-old.
Youth is not an issue here; Murray has matured excellently in his three seasons in San Antonio while working through his issues along the way. Spurs fans are witnessing him grow from a boy to a man and from an unproven young talent to an established two-way star.
Timmy is going to teach Dejounte not only how to be a champion, but how to be the appointed leader of a title contender. Even if he’s not the No. 1 option on the court – that role is shared between LaMarcus Aldridge and DeRozan – Murray is going to push himself and his teammates as far as he can to help them reach the top once again.
If there’s anyone that can teach Murray what it means to be a leader, it’s the man who brought the franchise its five banners.
Next: Trey Lyles
5. Trey Lyles
A late addition to the Spurs’ 2019-20 roster, power forward Trey Lyles bounced between two teams in the Northwest Division over the course of four years in the league and has yet to be put in position to fulfil his potential. San Antonio’s tandem of R.C. Buford and Brian Wright spotted this from afar and brought the 23-year-old along after losing out on Marcus Morris to a more favorable one-year payout at Madison Square Garden.
Lyles averaged 8.5 points and 3.8 rebounds in 17.5 minutes per game last season. This translated to an average stat line of 17.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists and one steal per 36 minutes. His efficiency took a major dip from his previous season (56.6 effective field goal percentage in 2017-18 to 47 percent last season) partially due to a reduction in his role and his team’s shift toward Paul Millsap and Jokic once things got serious.
Duncan provides a wealth of knowledge to any player he assists and spending time with Lyles could help unlock some of the potential from within. Lyles has the makings of a secondary playmaker and versatile defender, so Duncan’s deep-rooted fundamental knowledge of the sport could get instilled to the young forward as long as he’s willing to learn.
Trey Lyles isn’t the end-all, be-all for the Spurs, but an improved effort and some better shooting percentages would go a long way for a group looking to replace the value lost by shipping out Latvian forward Davis Bertans. While DeMarre Carroll takes some of the pressure off of the product of Syracuse, it’d be nice to see him slide in as a backup four/five and allow one of the deepest groups in the league to add another layer of reinforcement.
Tim Duncan is going to do everything in his power to help Lyles excel.